Friday, May 14, 2010

Ushahidi: A crowdsourcing site you probably have not heard of

Us research scientists always go after the latest and greatest shiny cool thing to study on the Web (like us with Wikipedia), but of course, the real world is full of chaos, anger, fear, and all the unpleasant things we all prefer to forget about. What can the Social Web, Collective Intelligence, and Utopia have possibly anything to do with all that?

Ushahidi is a "platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email, or the web, and visualize the data on a map or timeline." The goal is to "create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response." In March, while I was on an around-the-world trip to Beijing and Amsterdam, I read this article in the NYTimes about Ushahidi, and thought about how work like this reaffirms my belief that the Social Web is changing how information is distributed and used in the world, and that it is revolutionary. Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) has now been used in the Kenya's disputed election in 2007 (documenting the violence) as well as Haitian and Chilean earthquakes. "It collected more testimony with greater rapidity than any reporter or election monitor." "The site collected user-generated cellphone reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths and plotted them on a map, using the locations given by informants."


Let's think for a second about what happened. Someone (Ory Okolloh) who cared about what's happening in Kenya blogged about what was happening, and thought about how a web application could change the transparency of the events to be visible to the world, and then tech geeks read her post and build the web site over a long weekend. Then boom! The world changes.


Why did it work? What's the participation architecture? And what role did technology play in this? Clearly, attention around an event was aggregated, and this came as a result of a confluence of events. The participation architecture relied on the fact that people cared enough about what's happening to build the system, and the people on the ground to have the right technology to report the events to the website, and technology enabled the mapping of these events to a map. Viola! Mass data visualization results.


Amazing because this happened in such a distributed fashion. No government agency got involved, and no centralized authority coordinated the work over a multi-year government grant. Now this has been exported back to the USA and in Washington D.C., the system was used to warn about dangerous roads during the big snowstorm.

The same snow storm that caused the Technology mediated Social Participation workshop to move the date of the 2nd East Coast Workshop. Ironic, isn't it?

Ironic also because this was almost precisely what I had proposed to a Gov't funding agency program manager who visited PARC about 3 years ago (Aug 2007) who was interested in disaster response. She never followed up and we weren't funded on the idea. But here are a few slides from that presentation:

I think Ushahidi is awesome. Ushahidi happened because of people believed and cared about what is happening in the world. That, to me, is the power of the social web.